Out of Prison, Back to Congress? Michael Grimm Is Trying on Staten Island

Michael Grimm appearing Saturday at a rally on Staten Island, where he is trying to reclaim the House seat he yielded when he pleaded guilty to tax fraud in 2014.

It was Staten Island reduced to an overstuffed hotel ballroom: a cannoli spread, the thick tang of hair products and undying loyalty to a man — well, two men — whom borough outsiders keep trying to tear down.

“I’m overblown,” Michael Grimm, the former congressman and federal tax felon, told a crowd of more than 100 supporters on Saturday, though he seemed to be reaching for “overwhelmed.” “Sometimes you just have to step back and say you’re blessed.”

Blessed he was, one month before the Republican primary, with no shortage of attendees devoted to his bid to recapture his old office: his mother, his sister, Aunt Grace, Uncle Jimmy — and Anthony Scaramucci, the former White House communications director, lending the moment an excess sheen of Trump-branded celebrity.

“He’s a people’s guy,” one guest, JoMarie Prestigiacomo, said of Mr. Grimm, holding a two-sided sign. Its dual messages: Grimm 2018. Trump 2020.

Across the country, Republican candidates are racing to out-Trump each other in congressional primaries, concluding that their surest path to electoral success is to emulate a president who can often appear immune to political gravity.

On Staten Island — a patch of Trump Nation tacked onto a very blue city in the president’s very blue home state — the imitation requires little strain: Mr. Grimm, brash and swaggering since his first election to Congress in 2010, has been perfecting the routine for years. And Democrats are watching the contest especially closely, convinced that a Grimm nomination could put the seat in play in the fall and bolster their effort to flip the House.

For now, the Republican primary has become an early test of whether reputationally damaged candidates like Mr. Grimm can effectively harness President Trump’s rampaging political instincts for themselves. While others have tried — most memorably Don Blankenship, a mining executive and ex-convict who ran unsuccessfully for a Senate seat in West Virginia — a Grimm victory would supply a more credible blueprint: Crying “fake news” and telling off enemies is a start, but charisma counts, and abiding ties to constituents do not hurt, either.

“Good job, Mikey!” Joe DeLuca, 62, shouted at Mr. Grimm during a campaign stop last week, recalling his door-to-door hustle after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. “You was down there cooking for people, you showed up every day.”

Mr. Grimm’s incumbent opponent, Dan Donovan, is viewed by most fellow Republicans as a broadly inoffensive, if establishment-minded steward of the office. He has spent the last several months conspicuously attaching himself to Mr. Trump as well, recently introducing legislation that would require the president’s portrait be displayed at every post office in America, and sprinkling even casual conversation with mentions of his ride last year on Air Force One.

“Coolest aircraft in the world,” Mr. Donovan, 61, said in an hourlong interview last week, demonstrating the plane’s layout with a lunch check and his wallet.

But Mr. Donovan is facing a man who seemed to intuit the merits of Mr. Trump’s defiant approach long before the 2016 election, taking its tenets to their logical extreme.

The president refused to release his tax returns; Mr. Grimm is following suit despite having served seven months in a federal prison for tax fraud.

The president has discussed revoking credentials from members of the news media; Mr. Grimm once threatened to throw a television reporter off a Capitol balcony and break him in half “like a boy.”

The president claims the investigations into his administration’s dealings with Russia are a “witch hunt.” Mr. Grimm’s guilty plea in the tax matter has not stopped him from arguing the same about his own prosecution on the campaign trail.

“I see it identical,” he said in an interview last week at Andrew’s Diner, near Staten Island’s southern shore.

Chatting for over an hour, Mr. Grimm, 48, by turns praised the president’s physique (“this guy could be a good construction worker”), appraised his own opponent (“backbencher”) and allowed that his ex-Marine looks gave him an aesthetic advantage with women of a certain age. Before the interview, two tables of seniors demanded that Mr. Grimm drop by for hellos and cheek-kisses.

“I doubt Dan would want this to be a beauty contest,” Mr. Grimm said of his opponent, blinking sea-blue eyes that resemble a husky’s.

“You could say that every election,” said Barbara Brancaccio, a friend helping informally with the run.

“This election,” Mr. Grimm said, unable to resist, “it’ll be more true.”

This flourish was the latest in a series of unusually personal turns in this primary, even by the standards of New York City’s “forgotten borough,” perhaps the region’s per-capita pacesetter in bravado and grievances.

Mr. Donovan, 61, a former Staten Island district attorney, has framed his case concisely: How could residents in the district, which also includes a slice of Brooklyn, trust a proven liar with their vote?

The last time Mr. Grimm ran, in 2014, he did so under indictment. The case centered on federal charges that he hired undocumented immigrants at Healthalicious, a Manhattan health-food restaurant he once owned, and lied to federal investigators about it.

At the time, he cast the affair as a witch hunt, pledging vindication and promising voters that he would be able to serve the borough he had called home for more than two decades after growing up in Queens. Mr. Grimm won that November. He pleaded guilty that December. Mr. Donovan replaced him.

“It comes down to honesty,” Mr. Donovan said. “This man admitted he lied to us.”

Speaking to reporters on Saturday, Mr. Scaramucci offered absolution. “I’m a big believer in redemption,” he said, after making brief remarks before a the floor-to-ceiling American flag.

Mr. Donovan, despite a staid reputation, has not ceded the label of “Trump guy” to the challenger. He recently attended a Yankees game in Washington with Rudy Giuliani, the former Republican mayor (and Donovan supporter) who remains popular on Staten Island. Mr. Giuliani is now a lawyer for Mr. Trump.

On policy, the candidates have attacked each other as insufficiently conservative, with Mr. Donovan pointing to Mr. Grimm’s relatively moderate record in Congress and Mr. Grimm flagging Mr. Donovan’s votes against the Republican health care repeal and tax overhaul.

Even admirers worry that Mr. Donovan, despite a fund-raising advantage, has been caught flat-footed. A poll from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last month put Mr. Grimm ahead by double digits. Mr. Grimm said his own internal polling has him winning by 8 points.

The Donovan campaign contested these numbers, saying their man is ahead, but some close to him acknowledge the ubiquity of “GRIMM” signs across the borough — and of Mr. Grimm himself.

“He’s at the gym, I see him every day,” Joe Borelli, a city councilman supporting Mr. Donovan, said of Mr. Grimm. “I’m struggling doing a pull-up. He’s doing a pull-up and talking to voters.”

Trying his own meet-and-greet last week, Mr. Donovan bagged groceries for half an hour at a ShopRite, throwing a black apron over his white button-down shirt at Register No. 7.

One customer, Judy Fuentes, 63, remarked on Mr. Grimm’s inescapable campaign signs. “I would like to buy one of those thick pens, Magic Marker, and write ‘FELON,’” Ms. Fuentes told Mr. Donovan.

Yet despite the borough’s abundance of residents who work in law enforcement, many seem ready to forgive.

Speaking recently to retired detectives, Mr. Grimm stood before a large crucifix and an image of the pope, describing himself as an “open book” and asking them to rejoin his cause.

A man in the back, John Garrity, smiled.

“There is redemption, right?” said Mr. Garrity, 76, a retired detective supervisor, nodding toward the cross. “Say no more.”

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